INDEPENDENCE — When the now 6-foot-9, 260-pound Samardo Samuels was a senior and 6-9, 227-pound Tristan Thompson was a sophomore, they were teammates at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark, N.J.
Neither was the team’s starting center.
That spot was occupied by 6-9 270-pound Gregory Echenique, now a junior at Creighton University.
“We lost one game,” Samuels said Monday following a Cavaliers practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “Teams were like, ‘It’s not fair.’ Coaches would say, ‘Check their birth certificates.’”
Samuels, who averaged 7.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in 37 games (10 starts) last season as an undrafted rookie out of Louisville, and Thompson, the No. 4 pick in the NBA Draft after one season at Texas, are now teammates again with the Cavs.
Samuels, however, did not follow the typical path to the NBA.
Born in Jamaica, he was a high-scoring — and tremendously big — forward in soccer as a youth.
“I got in trouble, because a couple of guys said, ‘You’re too big,’” the soft-spoken, extremely friendly 22-year-old said. “I played forward and I liked to score. That’s how I got my scorer’s mentality.”
When he was 14, Samuels moved alone to Newark, stayed with mentor Steve Johnson on weekends and spent weekdays living in a dormitory with other basketball players at St. Benedict’s.
“I grew up in a rough neighborhood,” he said. “I used basketball as an outlet to get away from the stress and all that stuff.”
Not getting drafted after one season at Louisville was only a minor stumbling block to Samuels, whose wide body and willingness to work convinced the Cavs to offer him guaranteed money straight out of college, rare for an unproven free agent.
That decision is now paying dividends, as Samuels looked very solid while recording 15 points, seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks in 26 minutes off the bench Friday in Cleveland’s 91-87 preseason win in Detroit.
Appearing quicker and lighter on his feet than a year ago, Samuels added 15 points and four rebounds in the same amount of minutes Sunday in the team’s scrimmage at Quicken Loans Arena.
Samuels probably won’t play tonight at The Q against the Pistons in the Cavs’ exhibition finale because coach Byron Scott wants to get minutes for veteran Ryan Hollins, but he’s a big part — figuratively and literally — of the team’s future.
“He improved big time last year,” Scott said. “He still has a ways to go, but I expect big things from him. My expectation is for him to be one of those players we can depend on on a night-to-night basis.”
That is also the goal of Samuels, who is not a great leaper but knows how to use his ample backside.
“I’m not used to sitting on anybody’s bench,” he said. “It’s important for me to be on the floor and do whatever it takes.”
If that means banging bodies, committing hard fouls and playing defense, that’s what Samuels is willing to do.
“Somebody’s got to do it,” he said. “I don’t like to leave it up to somebody else. At the end of the day, I like to win. I hate losing. It weighs on my mind and I go crazy.”
Having played mostly center last season, when he shot .456 from the field and .618 at the line, Samuels spent the offseason working on his face-up jumper, and early results have been encouraging.
With old high school friend Thompson now a teammate again, there probably won’t be a lot of minutes available at power forward, where Antawn Jamison is the starter, but Samuels won’t mind — as long as he plays somewhere.
“I’m a basketball player,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where I’m at on the floor, I’m going to try to figure out a way to make it work.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.